Domestic and family violence (DFV) is a serious and widespread problem both internationally (WHO 2010
) and in Australia (AIHW 2018
), with enormous individual and community impacts and social costs, predominantly affecting women and children. DFV constitutes violence in the context of intimate partner relationships (domestic violence, domestic abuse or intimate partner violence) as well as between family members more broadly (family violence). DFV includes physical, sexual, psychological and emotional violence and abuse, as well as the sustained patterns of intimidation, isolation and control known as coercive control (AIHW 2018
). According to the 2016 Australian Personal Safety Survey, 23% of women and 8% of men in Australia have experienced violence from an intimate partner since the age of 15 (ABS 2017
) and women are much more likely than men to be hospitalized and killed as a result of violence from a current or former partner (AIHW 2018
). Domestic violence is the greatest health risk factor for women aged 25 to 44 and is the single largest driver of homelessness for women, a common factor in child protection notifications, and results in a police callout on average once every two minutes across the country (Our Watch n.d.
). There are limited data on the nature, extent and impacts of family violence in relation to children, but the effects of DFV on their health and development can be severe (AIHW 2018
Violence can occur in all contexts and communities. Efforts to raise awareness of the reality of DFV in Christian churches in Australia date back decades (e.g., Last and Gilmore 1994
) and recent testimonies by survivors of abuse show that the violence continues (Baird and Gleeson 2017a
; Lim 2015
; Pepper et al. 2021
; STDFVQ 2015, p. 104
). Initiatives are underway to develop policies, training and resources for churches to better recognize, respond to and prevent DFV, some longstanding and some more recent. These include efforts by denominations (e.g., ABM 2018
; Anglican Church of Australia n.d.
; Anglican Diocese of Melbourne n.d.
; PSU n.d.
), ecumenical and parachurch initiatives (e.g., Common Grace 2018
; Queensland Churches Together n.d.
; NCCA n.d.
), and interfaith projects (Vaughan and Sullivan 2019
). While there is a growing body of international research on DFV in Christian contexts (e.g., Nason-Clark et al. 2017
), there has been less investigation undertaken in Australia (Priest 2018
; Truong et al. 2020
). Calls for current research to support efforts to better prevent and respond to DFV have come from DFV workers and experts, the academic community, government, and churches themselves (e.g., Bartels 2010
; Hamence 2018
; Moore and Dickson 2015
; Priest 2018
; Vaughan et al. 2020
In this paper, we report on actions that church leaders have taken when responding to DFV situations and on views about the approachability of Australian churches for those experiencing DFV. This is the first Australia-wide, cross-denominational survey study to do so. First, we outline how DFV is present in Christian contexts and roles that churches play in the dynamics of and in response to abuse, with a particular focus on the contributions of clergy. Next, we present research into the responses of church leaders to DFV situations and the approachability of churches, drawing on data from the 2016 National Church Life Survey across multiple denominations. We conclude with a discussion of our findings in conversation with the literature on DFV in church contexts, a consideration of the limitations of this study, and recommendations for future research.
1.1. Domestic and Family Violence and the Australian Churches
Factors underlying and contributing to DFV lie in a range of environments, with “faith-based institutions” cited as one such environment (VicHealth 2007
). While it can be difficult to accurately record the extent of DFV in a population (ABS 2018
; AIHW 2018
), internationally, the evidence indicates that in English-speaking countries, intimate partner violence (IPV) occurs in Christian contexts at rates similar to those seen in general populations (Lock 2018
; Knickmeyer et al. 2010
; Nason-Clark 2009
; Levitt and Ware 2006
). The first study of the prevalence of IPV in Australian Christian churches was conducted in late 2019 for the Anglican Church and suggests that the prevalence is similar or greater among Anglicans than in the Australian community at large (Pepper and Powell 2021
At the same time, attitudes of communities and bystanders are significant both in the support of those experiencing DFV and ongoing preventive frameworks (VicHealth 2007
), with faith communities having an unrealized potential to further violence prevention and response (Vaughan et al. 2020
). As part of supporting community-driven initiatives to prevent and respond to violence against women and improve community awareness of violence, the Third Action Plan of Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children included a priority to “build the capacity of community and faith leaders to reject, prevent and respond to violence” (DSS 2016, action 3.9
Church contexts can both contribute to and, conversely, help to prevent violence (Horne and Levitt 2003
; Pepper et al. 2021
; Truong et al. 2020
). Church communities are embedded in the broader Australian context and churchgoers come from diverse communities and socio-economic backgrounds (Powell et al. 2017
). The same social and cultural risk factors which impact on the severity and frequency of violence operate in faith communities as elsewhere. While causes of violence are complex and require greater understanding, a common argument is that gender inequality is a key determinant of violence against women. In this framework, gender inequality refers to the social condition where men and women have unequal value and access to power and resources. The structure, norms and practices of gender inequality underpin and produce specific drivers of violence against women, such as condoning violence, men’s control of decision making, stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity, and disrespect towards women and male peer relations that emphasise aggression. In the context of other social inequalities, these gendered drivers support the tolerance of violence against women (e.g., Our Watch et al. 2015
; Vaughan et al. 2020
). Against this framework which links gender inequality to dynamics of abuse, the gendered leadership hierarchies and norms within some faith traditions has come under scrutiny (e.g., Vaughan et al. 2020
Research on the experiences of domestic violence survivors shows that, at their best, churches can provide trusted relationships and various forms of support to help victims and survivors to meet their needs within and beyond life in an abusive relationship (Pepper et al. 2021
). However, there are particular factors in churches that can contribute to the dynamics of abuse. These include cultural factors such as norms about marriage, forgiveness and gender roles, and complexities to do with the presence of both partners in a church community (Drumm et al. 2018
; Nason-Clark et al. 2017
; Pepper et al. 2021
; Wendt 2008
; Westenberg 2017
). For example, Christian victims of domestic abuse often feel that they are called by God to endure their suffering, to repeatedly forgive their abuser, and to fulfill their marriage vows until death, while abusers may use religious justifications for their violence and manipulate religious leaders (Nason-Clark et al. 2017, p. 1
). Research on violence in culturally and linguistically diverse communities also indicates the complex role that religion plays in the continuation of violence and in barriers to seeking help (Truong et al. 2020
; Vaughan et al. 2020
). For example, fear of stigmatization and of law enforcement authorities may lead faith communities to manage problems with violence internally (Vaughan et al. 2020
) and uncertain residency status increases the risk of DFV and is a barrier to seeking support (Vaughan et al. 2016
The experiences of those who have been abused show that clergy and other church leaders can play a particularly important role in responding to abuse in church contexts or conversely in failing to do so (Pepper et al. 2021
). Research on the ways that clergy are responding to domestic violence exists internationally, in North America especially, including for specific ethnic groups where DFV levels are elevated and for particular Christian traditions (e.g., Ames et al. 2011
; Bent-Goodley et al. 2015
; Choi 2015a
; Davis and Johnson 2021
; Nason-Clark et al. 2017
; Rotunda et al. 2004
; Williams and Jenkins 2019
). Little such research is available in an Australian context, with faith communities lacking capacity, resources and funding to document and evaluate the measures they are taking to address DFV (Vaughan et al. 2020
). An exception is a single-denomination study of clergy responses undertaken for the Anglican Church of Australia (Powell and Pepper 2021
). Other Australian research has involved a small number of clergy from a range of religions and culturally and linguistically diverse communities (Truong et al. 2020
), and a Victorian multifaith participatory action research project undertaken in the period 2018–2020 known as “Faith Communities Supporting Healthy Family Relationships”, which aimed to build the capacity of faith leaders to prevent and respond to DFV and violence against women and in which Anglican and Uniting churches participated (Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health n.d.
). In studies conducted internationally and in Australia, a minority of clergy have reported feeling well equipped to respond to abuse (Nason-Clark et al. 2017, p. 31
; Powell and Pepper 2021
; Skiff et al. 2008
; Zust et al. 2018
Based on more than 25 years of research into domestic violence in Christian families in North America, including a large number of studies involving religious leaders, congregations, victims and perpetrators, and workers who assist families impacted by abuse, Nason-Clark et al.
) assert that there are a number of ways that pastors can effectively respond to the needs of a person who has experienced violence from their partner. These include understanding what domestic violence is and how it can occur within a faith community, knowledge of available resources in the community and how to make referrals, providing spiritual counsel for victims, and supporting victims and their families and others affected by the abuse in the long-term process of healing (pp. 58–59). Pastoral support for abusers on the other hand is particularly complex, challenging and risky. Such support should follow a clear plan, including referrals to trained professionals, measures to ensure the safety of the victim, and accountability by the abuser (Nason-Clark et al. 2017, pp. 94–96
Faith-based contexts influence social norms and beliefs, and religious leaders can play a key role in building respectful relationships (Our Watch et al. 2015
). As well as responding to specific domestic violence situations when and as they occur, steps can be taken with a view to preventing abuse in Christian contexts. In preaching, biblical interpretation, liturgy marriage programs and more, religious language that asserts egalitarianism in relationships and links forgiveness to justice and dignity are important to correct harmful discourses that signify toleration of abuse (Westenberg 2017
). Moreover, awareness raising within the church community about the nature of abuse, the reality of its occurrence in Christian families, the unacceptability of abuse, and the supports that are available to those who are experiencing abuse is important for creating a culture of abuse prevention (Pepper et al. 2021
). The Faith Communities Supporting Healthy Family Relationships project developed a set of principles for what works for faith settings to prevent and respond to DFV and violence against women including prioritize the safety of women and children; strengthen relationships between secular organizations with DFV expertise and faith leaders; co-design and co-deliver initiatives between faith leaders, communities and sectoral experts; understand the central role of gender inequality and how this intersects with other inequalities; and engage senior leadership early and in a sustained way (Vaughan and Sullivan 2019
However, a review of the evidence available internationally about prevention and responses to DFV and violence against women in faith settings indicates that there is limited evidence on what works to build capacity in faith communities to prevent violence and to bring about long-term change. There is also little evidence on effective prevention and response when violence is perpetrated by people other than intimate partners. Further, more research is needed about what approaches are effective in holding religious men to account and in stopping their violent behaviour from reoccurring (Vaughan et al. 2020
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended that “faith leaders and communities establish processes for examining the ways in which they currently respond to family violence in their communities and whether any of their practices operate as deterrents to the prevention or reporting of, or recovery from, family violence or are used by perpetrators to excuse or condone abusive behaviour” (State of Victoria 2016, p. 89
In this paper, we provide baseline, quantitative data on the ways in which clergy and church leaders across multiple Christian denominations have responded to DFV situations with a view to informing the churches and those who work with them to improve their practices.
1.2. Research Questions and Hypotheses
We seek to answer three broad research questions.
First, what proportion of clergy have dealt with DFV situations, and what responses have they used?
Second, because forming bridges between churches and secular support services is an important way to equip clergy to better respond to DFV (e.g., Dyer 2016
; Nason-Clark 2009
; Vaughan et al. 2020
), how familiar are clergy with support services in their local communities?
Third, given the increased focus on faith communities with respect to their potential to contribute to DFV prevention and response (e.g., DSS 2016
; Vaughan et al. 2020
), to what extent do churchgoers feel they could go to a church for help if they or someone they know were experiencing DFV?
We also explore demographic and denominational variations in our findings. While this is largely an exploratory study, we make the following hypotheses about demographic differences. First, older clergy will be more likely to have dealt with DFV situations than younger clergy, because older clergy will typically have had more years in ministry contexts with a longer-term opportunity for contact with DFV situations. Second, female clergy will be more likely to prioritize victim safety in their responses. Given women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men (AIHW 2019
; ABS 2017
), they may choose to disclose more often or in more detail to female clergy, who may, in turn, be more attentive to another woman’s presenting needs.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Data Collection and Samples
Data from the 2016 Australian National Church Life Survey (NCLS) were used to answer the research questions. The NCLS is a five-yearly quantitative survey of thousands of Christian churches, hundreds of thousands of churchgoers and thousands of church leaders in approximately 20 Australian denominations (Catholic, Anglican and other Protestant). The 2016 survey wave received ethics clearance from Australian Catholic University (Ethics Register Number 2016-186E).
The NCLS is based in local churches (congregations and parishes), with approaches to recruitment and sampling varying across the denominations (attempted census, random sampling, or opt-in; paid for by the local church or by the denomination) (Pepper et al. 2018
). Participating local churches complete several types of survey forms, including the “NCLS Attender Survey” and the “NCLS Leader Survey”. All churchgoers aged 15 years and older are requested to fill out an NCLS Attender Survey form, usually during or after a service of worship. NCLS Leader Survey forms are available to anyone involved in leadership (including clergy and pastors, elders, church councillors and other leaders), with the most senior leader at the local church, at minimum, encouraged to participate. Both hard copy and online survey forms are available.
Catholic NCLS data are random samples; however, in Protestant denominations, there are self-selection biases in church participation related to church size, locality and theological tradition, with larger urban churches of an evangelical flavor over-represented in the datasets (Pepper et al. 2018
). Nevertheless, the datasets have national coverage and denominational diversity, and churches from a wide diversity of traditions participate. To correct for differences in participation, results are typically weighted to adjust for variations in survey participation levels between denominations and between churches of different sizes within the Protestant denominations (Pepper et al. 2018
). In the present case, 14 denominations and movements were sampled well enough for inclusion in the analysis, accounting for some 95% of the weekly churchgoers in Australia (not including Orthodox, independent or house churches) and 89% of the estimated number of senior local church leaders, according to NCLS estimates (Powell et al. 2021
). For a more detailed explanation of the NCLS methodology, participation rates, and the strengths and limitations of the NCLS datasets, see Pepper et al.
2.1.1. Leader Survey Participants
The 2016 NCLS Leader Survey (total n approximately 8200) comprised two 12-page variants. The questions used in the present paper were included in one of these variants and in a section of the survey which was completed by pastoral and ministry staff only. The final number of respondents for analysis was n = 883 “senior local leaders” (ministers, pastors or priests who are the primary or senior leader of a local church or who have equal standing in the ministry team, as well as laypeople serving as the principal leader in a local church). Almost all of these leaders were clergy—just 3.5% indicated that they were a layperson serving as principal leader. We restrict our analysis to senior leaders only rather than clergy more generally because of the NCLS sampling approach, which particularly targets senior leaders. Compared with churchgoers more broadly, the leaders were predominantly male (78%), Protestant (reflecting the relatively large size of Catholic parishes) and highly educated. Some 29% of leaders had completed a postgraduate theological qualification, while for 35% a bachelor degree was their highest level of formal theological qualification. Some 21% were born outside of Australia, including 11% from a country where English is not the main language spoken (primarily a country in Asia).
2.1.2. Attender Sample Survey Participants
The 2016 NCLS Attender Survey (total n of approximately 260,000 people from 3000 congregations and 20 denominations) consisted of a four-page main survey of demographics, Christian faith and practice and church health, which was completed by most individual participants and a series of smaller four-page surveys, each of which was a random sample of the total participants. The 2016 NCLS Small Sample Attender Survey L (“2016 Attender L”) covered the majority of the questions from the Main Attender Survey, together with a suite of questions on personal wellbeing, social inclusion and a range of social issues in relation to the church. The final sample size was n = 1270, some 59% of whom were female and 36% were born outside of Australia, including 23% from a country where English is not the main language spoken (primarily a country in Asia).
The demographics of the leader and churchgoer samples are shown in Table 1
The following measures from the 2016 NCLS Leader Survey were used.
Responses when dealing with DFV situations: The question was modified from a survey of Protestant pastors in the USA in 2014 (Sojourners, and IMA World Health 2014
). “Of the following responses, which have you used when dealing with domestic and family violence situations? (Mark ALL that apply)”. Response options were “Provided counselling to the victim”; “Provided counselling to the perpetrator”; “Provided marriage or couples counselling”; “Conducted a safety risk assessment with the victim”; “Referred the victim to a service agency”; “Referred the perpetrator to a service agency” “Other response” and “I have not dealt with domestic violence situations”.
Familiarity with support services: The question was “How familiar are you with support services available in your local community to assist victims and perpetrators of domestic and family violence (e.g., crisis centre, shelter, hotline)?” Response options were “Very familiar”; “Somewhat familiar”; “Not very familiar” and “Not at all familiar” (order reversed in analysis).
The 2016 NCLS Attender Sample Survey included the following question.
View of church as a source of help: “If you or someone you knew were experiencing domestic or family violence, do you feel that you could go to someone from the church for help?” Response options were “Yes”, “No” and “Not sure”.
Denomination was the affiliation of the church where the respondent completed the survey. There were sufficient unweighted cases to allow Anglican, Baptist/Churches of Christ, Catholic, Uniting Church, Salvation Army (Leader Survey only) and Pentecostal (Australian Christian Churches, C3 Church, International Network of Churches, Christian Revival Crusade) respondents to be separated in the analysis, leaving an Other Protestant category comprising the remaining denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Christian Reformed, Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, as well as Salvation Army in the Attender Survey).
Demographic variables were age, gender, highest level of formal education (school/trade certificate/diploma/associate diploma, university degree, postgraduate qualification) and country of birth (Australia; other country where English is the main language spoken, comprising the UK, Ireland, North America, New Zealand and South Africa; and other non-English-speaking county).
Patterns in leaders’ responses to DFV situations were explored by looking at the number and types of responses and correlations between different types. Cluster analysis (TwoStep Cluster procedure) was also used to determine whether leaders could be grouped according to the way that they responded. The basis for analyses of the different types of responses is leaders who had dealt with DFV situations rather than all leaders.
Bivariate analyses were undertaken to determine whether responses differed by denomination and demographics, using chi-square tests to determine statistical significance (p < 0.05). Effect sizes were calculated using Phi. Results for Catholic and Pentecostal leaders should be treated with caution due to the low number of unweighted cases upon which they are based.
Because there were significant differences in the leaders’ DFV responses by both demographics and denomination, multivariate analyses were then conducted to see which effects remained when the other variables were controlled. Binary logistic regressions were performed with leader responses to domestic and family violence as the dependent variable, and with demographics (age, gender, education and country of birth) and denomination as the independent variables. The proportions reporting DFV responses were relatively low among Uniting Church leaders, so the Uniting Church was treated as the reference category.
Demographic and denominational breakdowns on leaders’ assessment of their familiarity with local DFV support services were conducted, with eta-squared used for effect size. Linear regression was used to predict familiarity.
Demographic and denominational breakdowns on churchgoers’ feelings about approaching the church for help if they or someone they knew were experiencing DFV were conducted, with Cramer’s V used for effect size. Results for Pentecostal respondents should be treated with caution due to the low number of unweighted cases upon which they are based. Because there were no statistically significant demographic differences in the responses, multivariate analysis was not undertaken on the attender sample.
Analyses were conducted using IBM SPSS statistics package version 27. All univariate and bivariate analyses are weighted, while multivariate analyses (regressions) are unweighted.
This study aimed to explore clergy responses to domestic and family violence across Australian churches, clergy familiarity with support services, and churchgoers’ views about the approachability of churches in relation to DFV situations.
What proportion of clergy have dealt with DFV situations and what responses have they used? Most senior local church leaders—two-thirds—indicated that they had dealt with DFV situations. Unsurprisingly, as hypothesized, this increased with age, most rapidly in younger cohorts, with leaders more likely to be exposed to DFV the longer they were in ministry. Overwhelmingly, leaders who had dealt with DFV situations had dealt directly with a victim, typically by referring the victim to a service agency and/or by counselling the victim. Referral to service agencies is a key component in supporting victims of abuse, and is a principle recommended for faith leaders to effectively respond to and prevent DFV (Nason-Clark et al. 2017
; Vaughan et al. 2020
). A relatively high degree of referral of victims to service agencies was observed across denominations in this study. Approximately one-quarter of leaders had undertaken a safety risk assessment with the victim.
In comparison to responding to victims, far fewer leaders—although still a large minority—had dealt directly with a perpetrator, by means of counselling and to a lesser degree through referral to support services. Almost all of these leaders had also dealt with a victim. Male leaders were more likely than females to counsel perpetrators, as were Anglican and Pentecostal leaders.
A strong majority of Australian churchgoers in an intimate relationship have a partner who attends the same church as them (Powell et al. 2016b
). The discrepancy between leaders responding to victims versus perpetrators might reflect the greater tendency of victims to seek help. Leaders might also be reluctant to deal with perpetrators, due to concern for the safety of victims, as well as awareness of the complexity involved in dealing with perpetrators. The discrepancy is likely to also reflect the gendered nature of both DFV and church attendance, given that women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence than men (AIHW 2019
; ABS 2017
) and that some 60% of adults who attend church in Australia are female (Powell et al. 2017
The propensity to offer marriage/couples counselling, by 41% of senior leaders who had responded to DFV situations, is problematic. Studies conducted in other countries have indicated that this practice is also common elsewhere (e.g., Choi 2015a
; Horne and Levitt 2003
; Sojourners, and IMA World Health 2014
), with many clergy reluctant to see marriages end, even when they are abusive (Nason-Clark et al. 2017, p. 34
). Prioritization of safety at all times is the first principle recommended by the Faith Communities Supporting Healthy Family Relationships project for preventing and responding to DFV (Vaughan and Sullivan 2019
). Victims of domestic violence, services that support them and other experts express concerns about the safety and efficacy of couples counselling in that it fails to address the unequal power in an abusive relationship and can place the victim at increased risk. Standards and guidelines in many jurisdictions therefore discourage the use of couples counselling as a primary intervention for domestic violence (Mackay et al. 2015
; Vaughan and Sullivan 2019
). That most leaders who reported using couples counselling had also used other responses—particularly counselling the victim and/or perpetrator individually—suggests that couples counselling might not be commonly conducted in isolation. Nevertheless, the concerns remain—particularly the weak negative relationship between reporting couples counselling and victim referral to a service agency. Males (who are the majority of clergy), Pentecostals and “Other Protestant” leaders were particularly likely to have counselled couples, although the results for Pentecostal leaders should be understood as tentative because of the small number of survey participants. Education is needed to ensure that leaders understand the dangers involved in couples counselling.
How familiar are clergy with DFV support services in their local communities? While approximately three-quarters of senior leaders in this study considered themselves to be familiar to some degree, just one in six considered themselves to be very familiar. Being female and holding low levels of formal education (below bachelor degree) was related to higher levels of familiarity. These results suggest that more is needed to strengthen relationships between secular organizations and faith leaders, which is a key recommendation for faith communities to effectively respond to and prevent DFV, including regular contact and relationship between leaders and local specialist violence services, establishing referral pathways and ensuring that faith leaders have access to current information about local services (Vaughan et al. 2020
). Although leaders born in countries where English is not the main language spoken felt that they were no less familiar with DFV support services than leaders born in Australia and other English-speaking countries, these leaders were less likely to refer victims to support services. More research is needed to understand why this is the case.
The results for Salvationist leaders are worthy of particular attention. The Salvation Army is renowned for its mission to people facing hardship, with its local church structure (corps) integrated with its social service work, with its clergy (known as officers) strong involved in welfare programs (Daniel 2009
). In the present study, Salvationists were the most likely among the denominations to have dealt with DFV situations and to have referred victims to specialist support services. They were the least likely denomination to have counselled couples and were the only one with higher use of safety risk assessments than couples counselling. Levels of familiarity with local DFV support services were also highest in this denomination. Taken together, these results suggest a depth of experience with DFV and strength of awareness of the needs of DFV victims for safety and specialist support. More detailed research on the practices of Salvationist leaders may well be beneficial for churches across the denominations.
How confident were people in the pews that they could go to someone at their church for help if they or someone they knew were experiencing DFV? Nearly two-thirds felt that they could do so while approximately three in 10 were unsure. There was, however, a significant denominational divide in this sentiment. Only half of Catholics, nearly two-thirds of Uniting Church people, and three-quarters or more from other denominations felt they could make such an approach. This result suggests that attention is needed in Catholic parishes particularly, if Catholics facing DFV are to seek out and receive appropriate support from their church.
People from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are at increased risk of DFV (AIHW 2019
) and face barriers to seeking help (Vaughan et al. 2016
). However, churchgoers from countries where English is not the main language spoken were not less likely to say that they would approach their church for help.
There are limitations of this study that relate to sampling, survey question wordings, and the currency of the data. We consider each of these issues in turn.
Sampling limitations associated with the NCLS include the non-probabilistic nature of Protestant samples and the under-representation of certain groups. Catholic samples are random. In contrast, there is a likely participation bias among Protestant churches related to church health (Pepper et al. 2018
). While it is unclear whether or how this bias relates to DFV matters, that the DFV survey questions were such a small part of the survey forms is a strength of this study compared with other dedicated opt-in survey studies on religion and violence (e.g., Aune and Barnes 2018
; Powell and Pepper 2021
). The topic is unlikely to have affected participation in the NCLS.
While weighting addresses the low participation of Pentecostal and Catholic churches in the NCLS for overall statistics, small unweighted numbers of Pentecostal respondents in the leader and attender samples and of Catholics in the leader sample used for this study means that the results for these groups should be treated with caution. Larger samples would be required for a stronger analysis in these denominations as well as in the smaller Christian denominations, either as collected by the NCLS (by running the questions in more than one survey variant in future) or in dedicated studies.
Various commentators have highlighted the complexity and challenges in addressing DFV in culturally and linguistically diverse communities of faith (Truong et al. 2020
, Vaughan et al. 2020
). The present study was constrained in its capacity to examine DFV in culturally and linguistically diverse contexts and found few differences in the results for country of birth. The survey respondents from countries where English is not the main language spoken were mainly from multiethnic churches and were confident with English. Migrants are integrated into territorial Catholic parishes in Australia (McEwan et al. 2020
; ACBC 2007
), and multiethnic parishes are common (NCLS Research 2018
). Random samples of Catholic parishes participate in the NCLS. “Mono-ethnic non-Anglo” churches are, in contrast, a part of the Protestant church landscape, but their participation in the NCLS is low (Pepper et al. 2018
). Moreover, the Leader Survey and Attender Sample Surveys are offered in English only, which poses a barrier to participation for those less confident with English. Better, larger samples would be required to examine relationships between particular ethnic backgrounds and responses to DFV. The low number of cases afforded only general country of birth groupings in the present study.
Another set of study limitations concerns the framing and wording of the survey questions. The questions used the terms “domestic and family violence” (Leader Survey) and “domestic or family violence” (Attender Survey) without providing definitions. Leaders were asked to indicate the responses they had used when dealing with these situations. One response option referenced couples, and another “domestic violence” only. No other sorts of family relationships were explicitly referenced. Moreover, the question did not specify a timeframe, nor did it ask leaders how frequently they had used these responses, or which they had used concurrently for a particular family/couple/situation. Further, the term “counselling” is an ambiguous one. It might be understood by clergy to include pastoral care, and/or it could invoke the notion of professional counselling, which some might view to be the remit of specialist services rather than of clergy. A later dedicated DV study on Anglican leaders found that almost all clergy who had dealt with specific DV situations provided “pastoral or spiritual care” to a victim while approximately half had provided “counselling”, though that study was likely to be biased towards those clergy with a greater interest in the topic (Powell and Pepper 2021
). The present research can only provide a broad-brushed picture of the sorts of responses church leaders have used. More detailed research, including more specific survey questions and qualitative research, would be required to explore these nuances.
Finally, the survey was conducted in 2016, in the early stages of an upsurge of attention given to DFV in the Australian media, by the government, and in the churches. Although the results are now dated, they do provide rare quantitative data on DFV responses in churches and form a baseline against which later waves of the NCLS or other studies can be compared.
In addition to research on the specificity of clergy responses to DFV in particular cultural contexts, including different denominations and culturally and linguistically diverse communities, future investigations should examine responses to perpetrators particularly. A large minority of clergy appear to be working directly with perpetrators. Given the complexities and risks involved in doing so (Nason-Clark et al. 2017
), as well as the lack of evidence for what interventions with religious men are effective for accountability and behaviour change (Vaughan et al. 2020
), understanding current practices in dealing with perpetrators is a priority.
In conclusion, this study has found that, in 2016, two-thirds of local church senior leaders had previously dealt with domestic and family violence situations in their ministry. They mainly responded to victims of abuse by referring them to specialist services and counselling them. A large minority had also counselled and/or referred perpetrators and had counselled couples. The findings suggest a depth of experience among Salvationist leaders with DFV and strength of awareness of the needs of DFV victims for safety and specialist support. While, overall, a substantial majority of churchgoers felt that they could approach their church for help if they were experiencing DFV, just half of Catholics felt that they could do so. Future research should explore responses to DFV in specific denominations and culturally and linguistic diverse contexts in more detail and seek to understand the practices used by clergy who are dealing with perpetrators.